Open Letter on Political Prisoners

April 3, 2014

Open letter to political parties contending in the 16th Lok Sabha Elections on the release of political prisoners and related issues of public concern

[The following open letter to political parties contending in the 16th Lok Sabha elections asks them to clarify their stand on the recognition and unconditional release of political prisoners and the on the legal, political and economic issues that have resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of our fellow citizens. This letter will be sent to all the political parties and released to the press. If you/your organization would like to endorse this letter, please send your endorsements to communications [at] sanhati.com -Ed]

The 16th Lok Sabha elections in India are going to commence in a few days. Considered as the largest democratic exercise in the world, these elections are expected to allow the people of India to democratically elect their representatives who will give voice to their concerns and aspirations in the parliament. Therefore, as various political parties are declaring their manifestos, and candidates representing the political parties are going to the people canvassing for votes based on the promises made in their respective manifestos, all issues of concern of the people of India are being discussed and deliberated upon freely in this “festival of democracy”.

However, a major issue, which is a blot on the democratic conscience of the nation, has not been brought to attention at all, and the positions and views of the contending parties on this issue have not been clarified. This is the issue of the recognition and unconditional release of political prisoners, the numerous people who are imprisoned in various jails all over India, not because of crimes they might have committed, but because of their political views and ideologies and for participation in movements to protect their lands, lives and livelihoods. Therefore, we, organizations and individuals who are concerned with this matter, are writing to request you to publicly declare your stand on the recognition and release of political prisoners and the various causes that have contributed to the imprisonment of people on the basis of political beliefs and ideologies in a democratic country like India, and state what steps you would take in this regard if elected to the government.

The exact number of political prisoners in India is not available, mainly because such recognition is not formally given to prisoners in most states of India. However, based on the investigations of various human rights organizations and individuals, it appears that nearly ten thousand people might be imprisoned in various jails spread over multiple states of India, who have been charged under laws against sedition or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which have been used to criminalize dissent, or because of their involvement in mass movements. This is a huge number, and their continued imprisonment is of shame to Indian democracy, and an affront to the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly enshrined in our Constitution.

A large majority of these prisoners are from the most marginalized sections of our society, adivasis, dalits and Muslims, and in most cases they do not have the economic wherewithal to ensure proper legal representation and fight the legal battles for their release. Therefore, the onus for their unconditional release lies even more heavily on the government. We should like to point out that the history of our freedom struggle is replete with the examples of people such as Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Jatin Das, Aurobindo Ghosh and many others who were imprisoned for their political belief in freedom and charged under various criminal cases. They were vilified and condemned for sedition because of their aspiration for freedom and transformation of society, and today we are seeing the continuation of the same colonial practice in the imprisonment of these thousands of people for their political beliefs and aspirations.

Multiple observations by learned justices of the Supreme Court and various state High Courts have declared that the imprisonment of people on the basis of their political beliefs and ideology is unjust and unconstitutional, and these judicial pronouncements upholding the fundamental rights of all citizens should pave the way for the unconditional release of these prisoners of conscience. Also, proper recognition of political prisoners, as people who have been not been charged with committing crimes based on self interest, but rather for actions connected with their political beliefs and ideology, is essential, and appropriate legislation to ensure this needs to be passed. Therefore, we request you to publicly state your views on the matter of the recognition and unconditional release of political prisoners and what steps you would take to ensure the same if elected to government.

At the same time we elicit your stand on the matter of the draconian laws which have been used to keep these people in prison. The motivation of laws should be ensure justice, and when certain laws are being used to imprison people unjustly, such laws should not have a place in our constitutional setup. Draconian laws do not have any place in a democratic polity as they violate the basic fundamental rights of individuals as well as natural justice and are always open to misuse by the people in power. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (2002) was therefore rightly repealed by an act of Parliament in 2004. However, today we see that another such law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which was amended in 2008 to make it more stringent, has been used to detain and imprison a large number of people and also to ban a number of political organizations.

The UAPA obstructs the course of justice by preventing the release of prisoners on bail for prolonged times. We have seen its usage against a wide cross-section of people including doctors, journalists, students and activists, and in many cases after spending years in jail, the accused have been acquitted of all charges. Similarly, other sections of the Indian Penal Code, which have been used to charge people with sedition against the state, such as Sec 124A, which Mahatma Gandhi had described as “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen” are remnants of the colonial rule and do not have any place in our democratic republic.

Together with this, other draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) have become the pretext of rampant human rights violations by the security forces in areas of conflict, which is again detrimental to the democratic fabric of the country. In multiple areas of the country such as Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu or Dhinkia-Gobindapur in Odisha where people have been involved in movements for the protection of their lives and livelihoods, thousands of local inhabitants, in some cases entire villages, have been charged under sedition laws leading to their victimization. We therefore feel that immediate legislative steps need to be taken to repeal UAPA and the other draconian laws which are contributing to the unjust arrest and imprisonment of thousands of our fellow citizens and request you to publicly declare your position on this matter and state what steps you would take to ensure the repeal of these laws if elected to government.

The third relevant issue on which we would like to elicit your views are the political-economic causes of the conflicts which have contributed to the imprisonment of these thousands of people and the application of these draconian laws against them. A majority of the people who have been imprisoned under these laws and are considered as political prisoners, are from communities, organizations and movements struggling in various parts of the country against the intrusion of corporate interests which are bent on acquiring their land and resources for profiteering purposes. A vast plunder of land and mineral resources have been underway in various parts of the country, especially the forested areas of east-central India which is home to the adivasi populations, that has threatened these communities with massive displacement and loss of livelihood. A high level committee appointed by the Ministry of Rural Development itself to look at the issue of land reforms in 2009 had remarked this as one of “biggest land grab ever”.

We have seen with the alarm the massive corruption involved in this process as exemplified by the scams related to the allocation of coal blocks to companies or the allocation of natural gas extraction rights to Reliance Ltd. in the Krishna Godavari basin. Therefore, this large scale plunder of natural resources is not only causing devastation in the lives of the local communities, but also causing irrepairable loss to the national exchequer. It is unfortunate that the central and state governments, instead of giving a patient and sympathetic hearing to the organizations and movements opposing this process, have decided to consider their actions as seditious and subject people belonging to these movements to imprisonment and other acts of state repression. We feel that this violates the fundamental right of citizens of India to life and liberty and is a shameful thing for our constitutional system. Therefore, we request you to publicly declare your position on the matter of the corporate plunder of land and other national resources and state what steps you would take to immediately stop this phenomenon and hold the corporations and their facilitators in the government accountable for their actions.

Finally, we would also like to express our grave concern about the impunity of the security forces which is very detrimental to the democratic fabric of our country. Power is given to police and paramilitary forces in order to serve and protect the people, not to repress them. However, we have seen with concern the rampant violation of human rights by security forces in various areas, which ranges from arrests under false cases to rape and torture. Numerous people, in some cases entire villages as mentioned earlier, have been charged under false cases to harass, intimidate and imprison them. In most cases, such charges have failed to be sustained under legal scrutiny, but have already caused untold damage to the lives of people. Numerous cases of killings of innocent people in false encounters are now known, and in some cases highest level officers of the police have been accused of engineering these false encounters such as in the case of Ishrat Jahan in Gujarat.

A number of incidents of rapes by security forces, especially in areas of conflict such as Chattisgarh, Kashmir and the North-east, have come to light and activists such as Irom Sharmila of Manipur have been protesting against this for more than a decade. In many cases security forces have been found to work in close association with local armed vigilante groups or have been found to be closely allied to corporations which are involved in the plunder of resources. Many grassroots activists and organizations fighting for implementation of laws passed by parliament such as RTI, PESA, FRA, minimum wages act etc. have been harassed, threatened, arrested and even killed by local vested interests supported by security force. In various states the police and paramilitary forces have also clamped down on any form of public expression of protest, and prevented peaceful rallies and demonstration, thereby violating the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Therefore, instead of being of service to people, the security services have become their oppressors, and in many cases their impunity is maintained by laws such as AFSPA.

Sexual violence and torture of female activists in prison by senior police officers such as in the case of the adivasi school teacher Soni Sori have also gone unpunished, instead such officers have got awards for gallantry. All of this is ominous for a democratic system and need to be controlled immediately to prevent a breakdown of faith of the common people in the police and other security services of the state. It is understood that the security forces work under difficult situations, but that should not be a pretext for them to indulge in human rights violations and gratuitous violence with impunity. Especially, as all of you are concerned about the situation of women in the country, and would want to increase the representation of women in parliament as well as in all walks of life, the brutal victimization of women by security forces should be of grave concern. It is the role of the state to check the excesses by security forces and make them accountable to the law, and therefore, we request you to declare your position on the matter of the impunity of the security forces and state what steps you would take to immediately rectify this situation and hold them accountable to law and the constitution.

Amit Bhaduri
Sumanta Banerjee
Bernard D’Mello
Gautam Navlakha
Partho Sarothi Ray

[Endorsed by the CDRO meeting held in Kolkata on March 30, 2014]

1 Comment »

One Response to “Open Letter on Political Prisoners”

  1. sunil kumar banerjee Says:
    April 9th, 2014 at 06:26

    I endorse fully.

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